Understanding Cultural Differences through Psychology

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you are interested in learning more about cultural diversity, you might want to think about it through a psychological lens. This lesson discusses some of the ways to understand cultural differences through psychology.

Culture and Psychology

As an Asian American studying psychology, Mila often comes across ideas that strike her as culturally biased or problematic. She knows that most canonical theorists in her field come from Eurocentric traditions, and she believes that their bias shows in how psychology has developed.

At the same time, Mila knows that psychology as a field has a lot of different ideas to offer in regards to the understanding of cultural differences, or how people from different backgrounds diverge in language, religious beliefs, traditions, and approaches to life.

Social Orientation Hypothesis

One idea that Mila finds especially helpful is the social orientation hypothesis. This theory shows that people from different cultures often grow up with very different orientations toward other people.

For example, Mila grew up in a collectivist culture, or one that believes strongly in the interdependence of humans. In Mila's family and community, a person was only seen as successful if their whole family is successful. Mila tried to do well in school as a child, but it was just as important to her family that she help her brother do well in school, too.

On the other hand, many of Mila's friends come from individualistic cultures, those that value independence and individual success. Mila was surprised to learn from a close friend that in her family, children were expected to go to sleep in their own rooms, and individual success was seen as a marker of high capacities and strengths.

These different orientations toward self and other vary tremendously from one culture to the next and can profoundly impact how people from different cultures interact with and understand each other.

Educational Differences

Mila also knows that some cultures value education differently from others and that members of some cultural groups are more likely than others to have access to educational opportunities.

In Mila's family, academic success has always been valorized, and her parents worked hard to emphasize the need to get a higher education. One of her friends, though, comes from a family and cultural background that put a higher premium on successful social and romantic relationships. Her friend stopped going to school after graduating from high school, but feels content with her life and her large family.

Mila has also seen friends who want more education but are blocked from opportunities because of biases against their culture or lack of economic resources because of historical cultural biases that have prevented accumulation of wealth.

Linguistic Differences

As Mila thinks about it, she can also see that language can make a big difference in how cultures develop and how individuals develop within cultures. She used to think of language as part of culture, but she can see that language itself can shape the consciousness of people who speak it.

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